Marathon Run-down (and up and down and up)

If you want to skip the full race recap, here’s the story: we finished the race (I say “we” because I had a lot of help) in 3:51:50 after raising $6,207 to fight colon cancer in Aimee’s honor.  In other words–WE WON!

And now, for the longer version…

I flew down to Charlotte Thursday night so that I could have Friday to rest up, carb up, and visit friends.  I was especially excited to be staying with my friends Sloan and Jamie and their baby girl Ruthie.  Babies change so fast!  So I spent a lot of time just watching Ruthie play, sleep, eat, and grow.

One day Ruthie will use this picture to argue her way into blue hair, I'm sure.

One day Ruthie will use this picture to argue her way into blue hair.

Friday morning Sloan and I were out the door at 9am, but the expo didn’t open until 10am, so we decided to drive the last 18 miles of the marathon course.  The first thing we noticed was a sign near mile 8 for some girl named “Lauren” to “kick butt.”  I decided to pretend it was for me–even if it wasn’t.

Driving the second half of the course was good because I was only familiar with the first half (which I ran in 2010), but it was a little overwhelming too.  Are we there yet?

Finally, at the expo, we picked up our gear.  Sloan stood in line for the half, I stood in line for the full.  My first full.  Sloan is the girl who got me to sign up for my first 10k after I insisted I could never run 6+ miles, so this was a bit of a role reversal.  I can tell you that Sloan will be running her own full marathon one day, and I hope to be there with her.

It’s no secret that the Thunder Road expo has been going down hill in a town where every race ends up hill.  What used to take up the whole of the convention center now takes up a conference room at a hotel.  It’s sad.  Charlotte has a great running community and beautiful streets to run on, but not much corporate backing or city support.  I bought a shirt that said “flat is for sissies” and we moved on… only to be charged $5 for parking as we left.  Seems the Queen City needs to work on her charm!

I hit up the weekly runners’ lunch at Burger Co. next.  Like I said, Charlotte has a great running community.  And the fact that I can show up at noon on any given Friday and find a table full of runners chowing down is proof of that.  It was good to catch up with some old faces and meet some new ones.

Next I dropped off “Team LAUREN & Aimee” t-shirts with Aimee’s husband John and daughter Katie.  John and Katie flew up to NYC two weeks ago for the marathon-that-wasn’t.  They caught 4 shows in 3 days, so it was a successful weekend despite the lack of marathoning.  It was a special treat to see them twice in 2 weeks.  Back in the day I would see Aimee every day at work, John every week at church, and the girls 1-2 times a week between church and weekly coffee dates.  You could say I miss them a lot.

Back at Sloan’s I finished off a muffin and took a little nap.  We played with Ruthie until it was time for her dinner, followed by bath time–babies love bath time!  Jay called while Ruth was bathing to see if I had eaten properly and to check on how I was feeling.  He said he was meeting up with a teammate at 6:15 the next morning to get his run in before the race start so he could track me online.  We were both pretty upset he couldn’t follow me in person.  Stupid work.

Once Ruthie was down, it was time to feast on fresh spinach pasta from my favorite local pasta spot.  I ate two servings.  Sloan and I decided we’d be safe drinking one glass of red wine.  I’m glad we did because it cut through the nerves and sent me straight to sleep.

I woke up 10 minutes before my 5:45am alarm went off.  I walked downstairs to see Sloan was already making coffee.  We ate some breakfast, took turns going to the bathroom “one more time,” put on our race duds, and hit the road.  Jay called, but was hurried on the phone, “Got to go run!  I’ll be back before you start!”  I turned to Sloan and said, “This is so hard on him.”

Sloan parked 1/2 mile from the start and we jogged over.  We spotted the Westin on the way and decided it would be much warmer to wait in there (not to mention real bathrooms!) until bag check.  Yes–NYRR–even our little marathon down in Charlotte has a bag check.

Then we huddled at the start and I kept seeing people I knew, hugging them, clapping, bouncing, checking to see if my garmin was ready, praying, thinking of Jay, talking to Sloan, finally: BANG.  Or maybe it was a BEEP.  I don’t remember, but we were off.  Sloan had said she wanted to run 9 minute pace, but I thought she could run faster.  I didn’t say so because I didn’t want to pressure her.  I was aiming for 8:47 pace to hit a 3:50 finish.  We knew the first mile was downhill.  We knew we needed to reign it in.  We felt like we were reigning it in.  We ran the first mile in 8:03.  Oops!  The next few miles were also fast: 8:29, 8:20, 8:24–Sloan stayed with me the whole time.  We saw Lori and Ashley at mile 2.  Miss Anne at 3.25, followed by Liza and her family.  At mile 3.5 we turned left onto Providence Road, right in front of Christ Church.  There we saw a crowd of people cheering, some holding posters that my kids at St. Matthew & St. Timothy had made.  I saw John and Katie, waved and “YAYed” at everyone, felt the love, and kept moving.  I heard John yell after me, “Kick butt Lauren!”  I gave a thumbs up.

Feeling pretty chipper at mile 2 with Sloanie!

Feeling pretty chipper at mile 2 with Sloanie!

Climbing the long gradual hill up Providence, we slowed to 8:52.  We saw Paul, Lisa, Emily and Sophie at the top before hanging a right.  We winded through Foxcroft, running 8:35, 8:49, 8:48.  During that stretch we saw Tom  and Anne Carol cheering and we crossed the 10k mat together.  Every time I saw a familiar face or heard my name being yelled out, I would turn, smile and wave.  Unbeknownst to Jay, I had sent out a plea to all our friends in Charlotte to send pictures, videos, and updates to Jay.  I wanted him to be inundated with images and words so that he would feel like he was right there.  When I crossed the 10k mat, I thought of Jay at home, looking at his computer, seeing that first split pop up.  I thought, ‘He’s either going to think I’m going too fast, or he’s going to hope I went out with the 3:45 pace group.’

As we exited Foxcroft, Sloan said she was going to hang back, and for me to go on.  She’d run over half her race under her pace, and I was pretty confident she’d finish faster than she thought–but I gave her a challenging nudge to make sure she didn’t lose steam.  She yelled out after me, “Special treat at mile 18!!”  I figured she was talking about the extra Gu’s she’d have to hand me at that point.  I also knew our friend Emily was going to hop in to keep me company at mile 18.  Next 10 miles were just me.

Or so I thought.  At mile 9 (8:31) I saw Jamie and Ruthie, taking pictures, cheering, eager to see their wife/mom Sloan.  I said, “She’s right behind me, she’s running great!” Next I saw Dexter, Eden, Carolyn, I can’t remember everyone.  Love all those friendly Charlotte faces.  Heading down Queens Road to mile 10 (8:38) I was taking in how beautiful the trees are on that familiar stretch… when I noticed a familiar figure wearing familiar orange shorts and a familiar orange hat, sporting a “Team Lauren & Aimee” shirt.  Jay.  All at once I thought, ‘What the HECK??’ and, ‘Well, of course he’s here.’  The crowds were going wild (at least it sounded that way to me) as Jay jumped into the race with me, matching my strides with a huge grin on his face.  Our friends Farrell, Lori, Ashley, Liza, Skye and others were all jumping up and down. The pictures are priceless (thanks to Lori).

Surprise!  Jay jumps in at mile 10.

Surprise! Jay jumps in at mile 10.

Jay said, “How are you doing?”

“Okay, a little ahead of pace.  How did you get here?”

“Tara is covering.”

And then Jay told me the whole story of how he and Tara were chatting Friday night while he was working.  She essentially said it’s ridiculous that he couldn’t be in Charlotte to cheer me on (Tara is a marathoner as well) and offered to take his Saturday shift.  So at 7pm Friday night, Jay booked a plane ticket for 6:15 the next morning.  It was a welcome surprise to us both–and most of Charlotte, for that matter, as people who had intended to snag pictures to send to Jay were instead yelling out, “Hey Jay!  You made it!!”  When it comes to the running community in Charlotte, I sometimes feel like I married a local celebrity.

My next few miles with Jay slowed to 8:39, 853, 8:53, 8:40.  At the time I figured I gave myself some slack for the climb up Morehead.  But I think I was also pulling back, worried that I would speed up with Jay (as I often do) and regret it later.  Just before the half-marathon mat, the 3:45 pace group came up from behind us.

Jay said, “You’re in front of the 3:45 pace group!”

“I know.”

“Listen–I want you to run with them Lauren.  If you feel like you can, I want you to match their pace…” and then he started listing off familiar names of people in the group.

“I’m going to stick to my own pace, Jay.  If it were mile 18, maybe.  But 13 is too early for me to chase after them and find I’ve got no gas in the tank later.”

“Ok.  That’s totally fine.”

At this point the group was surrounding us and Jay was chatting it up with everyone.  I hung back, which I think slowed my pace a bit that mile too–my deliberateness.  We saw my dad and Annabelle, waved and smiled, and then Jay dropped out at mile 14 so he could watch some friends finish and make it to various points on the course.

Miles 14-18 were on my own.  They were marked by several things.  First, the half-marthoners were no longer running with us, so the crowd thinned out considerably.  Second, I was actually relieved to have some time to myself since I had barely had two moments to think about what we were actually doing–running a race to honor Aimee’s memory and to fight the disease that killed her.  Third, it started getting really windy.  Like blow-you-over-sideways windy.  I thought, oh, this will pass.  But it didn’t.  The wind kept on coming and coming and coming.  At one point, my Get Your Rear In Gear hat blew off.  I turned to grab it, but it blew further away.  I kept on running.  Seconds later a teenage boy ran up beside me, “Is this your hat?”  I was glad to have it back.  I saw Jay with Tyler and Denise at mile 15 (8:36), Lori and Ashley at mile 16 (8:57), met another New York runner at mile 17 (8:43), and was met with loud cheers at mile 18 (8:48) where Sloan, Jamie, Ruthie, Jocelyn, Liza, and I don’t even know who else were cheering.  Sloan gave me the extra Gu’s I needed to finish the course.  This was apparently where she thought Jay would surprise me (hence her clue that I’d be getting a special treat at mile 18), but he had jumped the gun on that!

My friend Emily jumped in with me at this point, and I would have been lost without her.  Emily and I used to run together every Tuesday.  We have shared joys, sorrows, drama and life lessons over the years.  And I don’t mean that in a “she’s one of my closest friends” kind of way.  Emily and I don’t call each other up and share this stuff.  We only share it when running.  Emily is a running buddy–a special class of friends that all runners have.  Running buddies are people you probably wouldn’t know if you didn’t run together.  They are not just a matter of convenience, things are shared on runs that aren’t shared in other spaces.  There’s something to it, and it’s special.  But the low-maintenance nature of a running buddy relationship lends itself to picking up where you left off, even if you left off 3 months ago.  Emily is dating a really special guy now, one who has been in the picture for a while, so I was eager to hear all her updates while barely having the breath to respond as we fought the headwind on the back course.  We clicked off a 9:03, 8:53, but it was at mile 21 when we clicked a 9:24 that I knew I would not break 3:50.  And I was totally ok with it.  I turned to Em and said, “I feel like we’re running 8:30’s, but we’re at almost 9:30!”  She said, “I know.  You’ve got this.”  And I knew I would finish, even though I didn’t feel like I would finish, in part because Emily said so.

And this is where the marathon is a mental exercise.  This is where you have to be tough.  Because you’re not sure how you’re going to make it to the finish, but you know that you must.  I had some “do it for Aimee” moments in my head, but I otherwise found it hard to think about anything other than putting one foot in front of the other.  I handed off my arm warmers to Liza at mile 22 (9:15), Jay joined us on a bike at mile 23 (9:04).  I said, “Monkey, I’m not going to break 3:50.”  “It’s ok, you’re doing great.”  We ran up Hawthorn hill at mile 24 (9:17), which isn’t as bad as it looks.  At this point I was sick of Gu’s and was craving Gatorade instead–something I never drink on long runs.  We saw Lori and Ashley at mile 25 (9:16), “You’re there!  You did it!  You ran a marathon!”  (They were closer to mile 26 than I’m letting on, and they had also seen me at my worst around mile 22).  I smiled, but didn’t have the energy to wave or cheer, despite what we were about to accomplish.

Emily ducked out at mile 26 (8:13… I always speed up at the end) “It’s all you now.”  And I ran uphill to the finish, since every race in Charlotte must end on an incline, hearing my name, hearing so many voices I couldn’t pick them out… I did see Larry and even managed to give Kathy a weak “high five” as I passed.  But all I remember in those last few steps was watching the yellow leaves pass beneath my feet, thinking I just wanted to get to the finish as fast as I could, realizing why Jay never sees me cheering for him near the end of a marathon (total tunnel vision sets in), and at the last second remembering to throw my hands up as I crossed the mat.

TR finish

Finished! 3:51:50 chip time.

I wasn’t sure what I was going to do or how I was going to feel after I finished, but I didn’t even have time to give it a thought.  As soon as I crossed my friend Caitlin was right beside me, “I just walked in through the barricade!  I just let myself in!  You can’t do that in New York!!” I leaned on her whether I needed to or not.  I just leaned, grateful she was right there in my moment of “what now?”

And then we all got together.  Jay, my dad and Annabelle, Sloan, Jamie and Ruthie, Caitlin and Garrett, and countless Charlotte Runners that have made the Queen City our home.  Jay put my pants on my legs the way I do when he finishes a marathon–the tables had turned.  We walked back toward the car half a mile away.  I called my mom as I walked.  Jay and Sloan kept looking back at my slow-going-wobble and laughed.

I have to say, as grand as finishing my first marathon was, I wasn’t overcome with emotion as I thought I would be.  I had visions of collapsing on the ground in tears.  Maybe that would have happened someplace else, but it was impossible in Charlotte.  I had people like Lori, who was always two weeks ahead of me in training for her first marathon, blazing the way, and then right there on the course (all over the course!) on my race day.  People like Farrell, who picked Jay up from the airport at the last moment, and then ran with her two little kids across the street to cheer me on in the last mile (thank goodness a cop was there stopping traffic!)  People of Christ Church, especially John and Katie, who will always have an Aimee-shaped void in their hearts, even as she continues to live through each of us.  People like Sloan, who are the personification of the ever-cheesy Bette Midler song “Wind Beneath My Wings” because she is always there without making any show of it.  And it wasn’t until I was soaking in Epsom salt after the race, a quiet moment to myself, that this wave of gratitude–for our friends in New York and our friends in Charlotte, my family and my coaches, my husband especially, the cloud of witnesses that brought me across the finish–finally washed over me.

We did it.

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2 thoughts on “Marathon Run-down (and up and down and up)

  1. Elizabeth says:

    AMAZING, Lauren!!! What an inspiration.
    xoxo

  2. Love this post, Lauren, and not just because you used capital letters. 🙂 I saw that you posted this awhile ago, but I purposely waited to read it until I could give it the time and emotion it deserved. I’m really proud of you and understand the grief you’ve felt and are still living with. I love that Jay was able to surprise you. Keep in touch.

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